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AYO.: Rebirth of Cool

German-Nigerian singer and songwriter Ayo. talks to STARK about her new album, “Billie-Eve”, and shares her thoughts on philosophy, forgiveness and the dreams that keep her going.

Words & Interview: Priscilla Djirackor
Images: Courtesy of Ayo.

While her name might not ring any bells for most in the States, Ayo. , which means “joy” in the Yoruba language, is not a new artist. Since her 2006 debut album Joyful, the multi-platinum singer/songwriter and musician has quietly taken over Europe while building up momentum worldwide. She’s become a UNICEF patron, promoting every child’s right to education globally. There was even Ayo Joy, the 90 minute documentary all about Ayo. by Raphaël Duroy.

With her third album (named after her daughter), Billie-Eve, out since earlier this year, and an upcoming tour soon to be underway, STARK caught up with Ayo. to check on all that’s new and so far gone.

Your sound has changed a lot on your new album Billie-Eve. More electric, more rock. What was your inspiration and the creative process behind this LP?

A lot of people would say it is very different from my first or second albums [Joyful (2006) and Gravity at Last (2008)] but in fact, I feel that it is not that different. It’s just that the sound is different, you know. Instead of playing the acoustic guitar, I decided to pick up an electric guitar. So that’s probably the main difference. The way of writing is still pretty much the same, but I would say that the record is just a little more dynamic, reflecting the state of mind I was in at the time, because I went through a lot of changes and I really felt kind of more “rocky”. There was a lot of excitement in my life then. I can say I felt that for the first time in my life, I could make decisions on my own, with nobody left or right to help me. I was really alone, but I thought it’s actually okay because I can do exactly what I want to do without asking anybody for anything, and I just do whatever it is that I feel. You know, it’s like you put yourself first.

So at that point in your life, you felt a need to renew yourself?

Exactly, I felt like I was reborn.

What did you want to achieve with Billie-Eve? Is it about being and showing your true self?

I can’t say I wasn’t myself on my prior albums, but with the years, you gain more confidence. So I would say I am way more confident now than I was before, but it’s all a natural process. Natural growth.

You mentioned you picked up the electric guitar. How did that happen? Did you just happen to stumble upon one or was it a conscious decision?

Actually, it happened when I was touring. You know, when you’re touring you’re on the road for three or four months, and it can become really boring at some point. So I was looking for things to do while on the road. I would play the PlayStation or the Nintendo DS on the bus [Laughs], but then I saw my guitarist in what we used as the living room of the bus and he had this baby amplifier and his electric guitar. So at one point, I just took the electric guitar and started playing around with it. I loved it so much that I went on to play some songs with it during the tour, instead of my acoustic. I would put in the wah wah sound, and play around with the pedals and the effects, and at that point, I knew that I would be playing a lot more of it on my next album. It was like a toy to me. I don’t know if you play an instrument but if you do, get yourself an electric guitar! [Laughs] And pedals and just play with it, because it is so easy to get a cool sound out of it.

What is more important to you when creating, the composing or the writing of the song? What comes first, the beat, the melody or the words?

Sometimes, the words come first. I start with the words and melody in my head, without even playing the guitar or the piano. Most of the time though, I have to say I pick up my guitar and I just start to play and whatever it is that I play inspires me to write the song. It puts me in a certain mood. Because the way I write is really personal, I mainly pick up the guitar when I feel I really need to, like I have to work out kind of or I have to work on myself, or I have something to say. When I feel emotional about something, that’s when I pick up the guitar and start to play music.

So it has some sort of a therapeutic value to you?

Yes, definitely. The way I started playing music is really a selfish one. I never thought I would release a record or get signed to a label. I never really thought of that. I did that because I had to do something; I had to find a beautiful escape. You know, some people do drugs, others do a lot of sports, some others paint or do spoken word. I chose to play music. I mean some do music and drugs [Laughs], but I just do music.

I’ve read some of what the critics have said about Billie-Eve, saying it was commercial compared to your prior albums. What do you think when you hear those sort of comments about it?

I would say I don’t think it’s commercial at all, because commercial would be to go into the exact same thing I’ve done before. As in thinking because it worked before, it would work again. That would be commercial.

How do you feel greeted by the US audience? I was lucky enough to see you live at the Highline Ballroom in New York in June and the show rocked! But I also noticed that a lot of people in the audience were European or African. You’re already very popular in France and Germany where your records always reach the top of the charts. What should we expect here in the US? More concerts?

Definitely. I am going to be touring the US in February and do a West Coast and an East Coast tour. I am really, really looking forward to it. I love New York, used to live there and I really miss it. But at the same time, it’s not even the fact that I’m going to be touring the US, in fact, it’s more a new adventure. I like experiencing different things in life. I love traveling and I have been staying home for a while now. I mean I do travel quite a bit, but I really love being on tour. And I think my brain needs it as well, as much as my heart and my soul.

Where are you based now?

I live in Paris now. A year or so ago, I got rid of my place in New York and moved to France. I have my family in Germany, but I don’t have an apartment or anything there.

Speaking of family, your new album was named after your daughter, Billie-Eve. What was the inspiration for her name?

It was like a play on words. First, I wanted to give her the name “Believe”, but you can’t do that [in Europe]. They say it’s not a name so you’re not allowed to do that. So I thought ok, Billie and Eve. I named my first guitar Billie, and I really love Billie Holiday; and Eve to me is the first woman, and a strong woman as well. And I thought I am going to have this girl, and she will be a strong woman. She was born early and had to struggle a lot already. I felt Billie-Eve would be a perfect name for her, I believe.

Clearly, family is very important to you. I understand that things were not easy for you growing up. Your song “Black Spoon” talks about heroin addiction. A problem close to home as your mother suffered from it. How does that affect your approach to being a mother?

Now that I am a mother myself, it’s funny because I could think how can somebody do something like that? Leave the family alone, like my mom did, for example. But now I look at it in a different way and I think that we’re just human beings and make a lot of mistakes, but it’s part of life. Every day I look at my kids and I would never say, “I would never ever do this or that” because in fact, we never really know. We don’t know about tomorrow. The only thing I know — I think I know — is that I try my best to be there for my kids, to be the mother that I wanted to have. But I’m not even sure that is the good thing to do. I believe that we need to accept that we all make mistakes, and have to love our children and let them be who they are. And this affects my music in the sense that it gives me the feeling that there is someone I need to sing for, rather than just for myself. I play for my children.

What you’re saying is very important and wise. It’s important to learn how to forgive.

Yes, it’s important. I think you carry frustration if you can’t forgive and I don’t want to pass that energy onto my children. It’s also about breaking this vicious circle of bitterness…

I, and many others, I’m sure, dream of some collaboration between you and your partner Patrice. Is that a fantasy or something we can look forward to?

That’s funny [Laughs]. Hmm, I don’t think so. We separate a lot of things, including music, and now we separate things more than ever before, so it is unlikely that we [will] record together. But then we can never say never, so maybe one day. We did a duet on one of his albums, but there won’t be a common album a la Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, no [Laughs].

Any plans of touring in Africa? Are people starting to be aware of your work there?

I would love to! I actually did some concerts there and it’s actually a plan of mine, a big dream, to do like a real tour in Africa. I could tour Africa for months like October through March and then I come back to Europe when it starts to get warm [Laughs]. Africa is where my origins are. My father is from Nigeria, my name, my background, everything is from there. And I’m proud of it, I must say. I love Nigeria. I would definitely love to perform there.

If you could, how would you like to impact the world?

If I could, it would be great to be God for one day and fix all the little problems, making things more just. I think of children, so many of them don’t even have parents. When you think about this Western world, for example, people split up and as a kid in the middle of that, you think it’s the end of the world, although it’s not the case because they have a father and a mother who will always love them. But I think about the kids that don’t have anybody. The way I would love to pay back is to find a parent for every kid who doesn’t have one. Find somebody that will love them.

Ayo’s Billie-Eve was released digitally in the US on November 15, 2011.

Listen to Ayo. on Spotify, HERE

Images courtesy of Ayo.

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